In the days preceding the 1985 NBA draft lottery, commissioner David Stern practiced drawing oversized envelopes from a clear, spherical drum. Staff members carted the drum into his office, where Stern remembered "rehearsing to a fault," hoping all would go smoothly for the live lottery broadcast from the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
For the young commissioner with 16 months on the job, the actual event -- 6 minutes 31 seconds -- passed in a blur, but the final moments and ultimate outcome remain unforgettable.
As Stern worked his way toward the envelope designated for the No. 1 pick, the nervous energy of New York Knicks fans filled the room. When Stern ripped open the envelope at the No. 2 slot and revealed the Indiana Pacers logo, the onlookers erupted, knowing New York would receive the No. 1 pick and franchise-player-of-the-future Patrick Ewing.
It was an astonishing -- some would say suspicious -- turn of events for a league in need of big-time players in big markets.
"New York is going crazy," Stern recalled. "[Knicks general manager Dave] DeBusschere can't believe it . . . My wife and I go get in the car. We pull out from the Waldorf Astoria and she turns to me while I'm driving and asks, 'OK, how did you do it?' I said, 'I'm sorry, I can't tell you.' She's given me heat for that for 20 years."
Before the conspiracy theorists congratulate themselves, know that Stern was joking. While Dianne Stern, like many observers, questioned the results of the 1985 lottery, there were no frozen, heated, creased, or marked envelopes. Commissioner Stern learned long ago to dismiss the urban myths with humor.
"We used to say to ourselves, we think what they're doing is accusing us of a felony, and that's not nice," said Stern. "It was sort of humorous because either [the envelopes] were heated or they were freeze-dried or they were bent or they were marked . . .
"Have I been guilty of any criminal conduct in the NBA's affairs? Absolutely not. I was a member in good standing of the New York bar. I wouldn't do that. There's an attribution of power and ability that far exceeds the reality."
In reality, the draft lottery is an imperfect, unpredictable system in its third incarnation, producing upsets almost annually. The Celtics need no reminders about the 1997 lottery, when a 36.3 percent chance of landing the top pick and Tim Duncan turned into the No. 3 and No. 6 picks. The only certainty about the draft lottery is that it can change NBA history.
This Tuesday night in Secaucus, N.J., the odds will favor the Celtics receiving the No. 2 pick, but they could rise to No. 1 or fall as far as No. 5 and miss the chance to draft either Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. Teams at the back of the lottery pack hope to defy the odds and win it all, as the Orlando Magic (with a 1.5 percent chance) did in 1993.
"Rarely does the worst team get the first pick," said Orlando senior vice president Pat Williams, a four-time lottery winner. "I've sat up at that table many, many years. The emotion in there is indescribable. When you think that your future employment hinges on some Ping-Pong balls rattling around in a machine, oh, what an insane way to make a living.
"They have literally spent 20 years fine-tuning this thing, experimenting, altering, adjusting, reacting. The last few years, I think they have finally got it down to the way it's going to stay. But nobody will ever be happy. There are still those who would say do away with it. But those of us who were around in '84 will never forget that saga. Then, in '85, we saw [the lottery] unfold for the first time and it was every bit as controversial as the year before."
Over the years, the NBA has adjusted with the odds, hoping to improve the chances of the teams with the worst records. The most recent major modification came in November 1993 when the current lottery ticket-like system took shape. Under the revision, the odds of the team with the worst record receiving the top pick increased from 16.7 percent to 25 percent. The non-playoff team with the best record saw its chances of winning the lottery drop from 1.5 percent to 0.5 percent. Williams proudly refers to the change as "The Orlando Rule."
With the second-worst record in the league, Orlando won the 1992 draft lottery and the right to select Shaquille O'Neal. For Williams, the lasting memory of that night is 11 teams arriving in Secaucus with O'Neal jerseys and 10 team representatives stuffing their jerseys back into paper bags once the Magic won the lottery.
After missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker in 1993, the Magic returned to the lottery with just one Ping-Pong ball out of 66. Defying the odds -- and likely mortifying league officials -- Orlando won for a second straight year.
"When our ball was not selected 11, you knew something had happened," said Williams. "Oh baby, there was a hush across that room I will never forget. When it turns out our ball has come up -- that one little lone ball has emerged -- it was a moment for the ages.
"The year before, David Stern had been thrilled to see me come up. Thrilled. The next year, I have never seen anybody less happy to see another human being in my life. If he could have opened up a trap door for both of us to go down, he'd have done it. Before I shook his hand, the 'Orlando rule' had been instituted."
Stern laughed upon hearing Williams's comments, claiming impartiality when it comes to greeting lottery winners. Still, he acknowledged that he hopes struggling teams do well.
The league will evaluate the current lottery system during the offseason to ensure, as much as it can, that it is in the best interest of teams to compete hard until the end of the season.
"There have been some suggestions that we've weighted it too much to the teams with the worst records," said Stern. "I scratch my head and say, 'I thought that was the purpose of the draft.'
"We're going to have an interesting series of internal meetings this summer about the lottery to see if it's as good as it should be. We're open to any improvements that would seem to make sense, but we think we're pretty close to what is the best system under the circumstances, if not the best."
Who can forget the lucky coyote teeth attached to the brim of a 10-gallon hat worn by Dallas Mavericks owner Don Carter in 1992? Or what about Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss bringing a Native American rock provided by boyfriend Phil Jackson in 2005? After showing the rock, Buss memorably declared on live TV that she had hoped for a different kind of rock from Jackson.
That same year, the shaky hands of Milwaukee Bucks general manager and lottery winner Larry Harris (a 6.3 percent chance) displayed a lucky bracelet and lucky fishing lure sent by fans, and a 2-inch wooden rooster from a friend.
"Going into it, I didn't think we had much of a chance of winning; the most important thing was I didn't want to fall back," said Harris. "So, the whole day, it really wasn't one of those where I was doing a whole lot of meditating or speaking to any Tarot cards.
"When our team name was not called [at No. 6], I knew we were in the top three, but it was so fast that I never got a chance to react or enjoy the moment. Then, once we did win, it looked like I had never won anything in my life. I never even thought for a second what I would do if we won. Would I jump on the table? Would I high-five [ deputy commissioner] Russ Granik? Would I chest bump him?
"This time, if we do have a chance, I'll think about it a little more."
Orlando, the winningest team in draft lottery history, goes to extremes when it comes to planning for the big night. (Wink, wink.)
"Here's the secret," said Williams. "It comes down to the Ping-Pong balls. When you live in Orlando, you can do this -- start up a Ping-Pong ball farm out on Disney property. Every night, Tinkerbell goes over and sprinkles pixie dust over the farm. We raise these magical Ping-Pong balls. Now, there's a heritage, a history of winning Ping-Pong balls."
The Celtics will employ a different sort of history this year, with Hall of Famer Tommy Heinsohn representing the team at the proceedings. The obvious hope is that Heinsohn can bridge the gap from one successful Celtics era to the start of another. But if Boston and Memphis drop back, an unlikely lottery winner would be fitting for a system never short on surprises.